When Conversations Become Crucial ... What You Say Next Matters


Organizational Culture Change – One Conversation at a Time


It was a hot and humid July afternoon in Houston, Texas and nearly 300 employees of a recently restructured convention complex were gathered in one of the spaces typically reserved for clients to hear an address from Phillip, the incoming COO. The Phillip was not new to the world of facilities management nor was he a novice when it came to organizational “turnarounds.” He was, however, new to this particular facility. For the week preceding his arrival the buzz around the corridors was that the COO was planning on taking names and cleaning house.

As Phillip offered his rote, yet cordial, welcome to the employees, he couldn’t help but recall the warnings that he had been given about this facility - the entitlement attitude that was rampant throughout most all departments with employees constantly “stretching” policies, abusing company privileges and at the same time requesting added benefits and perks.

As he moved past his opening comments and began to talk about some of the change initiatives that he was considering a hand in the crowd shot up accompanied by a resounding, “Phil! Can I call you Phil? How old are you anyway? You can’t be over twenty-nine. Look, I’m old enough to be your mother. Can I give you some advice? Before you go about sweeping-up all of us renegade employees, cleaning house, department-by-department, and beefing-up the HR police squad, I suggest you slow down and get the lay–of-the-land.” Phillip gripped the podium and stiffened his spine. He had never been publicly confronted by an employee with such disregard for common courtesy and respect.  He cleared his throat, raised a finger into the air, and, after a brief pause, began to speak.

What You Say Next, Matters!

In the blink of an eye, what was supposed to be an executive address to a room full of eager employees was suddenly escalated to a Crucial Conversation. When emotions run deep, adrenalin is flowing around differences of opinion and the stakes are high, what you say next can mean the difference between success and failure. How people habitually handle Crucial Conversations is one of the most reliable predictors of organizational effectiveness and, conversely, organizational disaster.  The situation cited above is a case in point. In situations like this, leaders have a choice to either talk it out or act it out.

"How people habitually handle Crucial Conversations is one of the most reliable predictors of organizational effectiveness and, conversely, organizational disaster."

Phillip’s situation didn’t just happen with the utterance of this employee’s question. The foundation for this exchange was laid well in advance. When you reflect on your own life, isn't it true that your world is perfectly organized to yield the results that you're currently experiencing? This same dynamic had been witnessed by dozens, even hundreds, who, over time, had noticed occasions where employees and supervisors acted out their frustrations rather than talk them out respectfully. They watched and even benignly participated but said nothing. Why? Silence in the face of potentially sensitive situations - conversations in which the stakes are high, emotions run strong, and there are sharply opposing viewpoints is typically the path of least resistance in any organization. Unless leaders go to extraordinary lengths and exercise great skill to counter the overwhelming tendency for people to remain silent - disaster is inevitable. The sad truth is that these consequences predictable. The redeeming truth is that they are avoidable as well.

"...your world is perfectly organized to yield the results that you're currently experiencing!"

Effective leaders learn from the myriad of Crucial Conversations that they and others are not having, (or not having well) and consciously connect the dots between these Crucial Conversations and the desired results. Mastering these skills is akin to reclaiming the professional real estate required for success. Every time we make the choice to act out our concerns by choosing silence (withdrawing, avoiding, sugar-coating) or violence (labeling, controlling or attacking) without talking about our concerns openly yet respectfully, we cordon-off yet another piece of turf in which our influence is limited or non-existent.

"Mastering crucial conversation skills is akin to reclaiming the professional real estate required for success."

Prior to Phillip's employee address, I was called to offer some brief phone coaching to help prepare for what was predicted to be a hostile reception. The majority of our 90 minute coaching session (at least one hour) was spent focusing on the COO – not his speech. Although a well crafted and artfully delivered speech can be inspiring and leveraging – no speech has the power to serve up the sustainable influence that candid and respectful dialogue yields.

What follows is a series of questions that we used to guide the COO’s preparation for his company-wide address and a brief version of his responses.  Witness what happens the moment Phillip realized his address became a Crucial Conversation.

Q: What do you really want from this interaction with these employees? What do you really want for you? For the workforce? For the long-term relationship between you and them?

Phillip’s immediate answer to this three-part question was, “I want these employees to understand that I mean business and that we are not running a country club around here. I am an honest but straight shooter. I expect the same from them.”

I paraphrased his comments by suggesting that Phillip really wanted some affirmation from the employees that his intentions were to do what was best for the company and that he wanted mutual accountability and respect. He also agreed that he also wanted to candidly share his concerns without having to water-down his message. Over the long-term Phillip also wanted mutual trust with employees and the associated comfort of speaking honestly about tough issues.

Q: What judgments or opinions are you holding on to that might make it easier for you to see yourself or others as villains, victims or helpless accomplices?

This question takes direct aim at the hardened attitudes that accompany our sellouts and biased stories. Research indicates that once a set of facts is forged into an opinion evaluation or judgment the associated feelings and behaviors immediately follow. The problem is that when we are in a reactive situation we tend to craft stories that generate emotions and behaviors that move us away from what we really want for ourselves, others and the vitality of the relationships. It’s not hard to imagine that Phillip saw the employees much like a bunch of juveniles who were in need of a healthy dose of regimentation and structure. In lockstep with this story Phillip, naturally would take on the role of the drill sergeant. What else could he do?

Q: What role are you playing in this problem that you are pretending not to notice?

Phillip recognized that he was clearly biased by the consultant’s report that had diagnosed the workforce problems that he had just inherited. He realized that he was placing a lot of stock in these assessments without challenging them. He had not yet acknowledged that an alternative interpretation might reveal a void in executive leadership as a contributing factor.

With these questions and responses in hand let’s return to the podium with Phillip to hear his response.

As Phillip cleared his throat, raised a finger into the air and began to speak I watched from the back of the room with anticipation. What I saw left me awestruck. Phillip lowered his finger, put his notes away, and proceeded, “Well, to be perfectly frank, I have mixed feelings. On one hand I am disturbed because I have never been publicly challenged by an employee in a way that I find so disrespectful and condescending! I was tempted not to honor your comment with a response.” Phillip paused and took a long swig from his water glass. He glanced over the crowd and began nodding his head up and down, as if to concede a point. He continued, “On the other hand, I suspect that if you have the nerve to say what you just said – knowing that I hold the fate of your job in my hand – you must have some pretty serious concerns that I would do well to understand. I am guessing that there might be other similar concerns among this crowd as well.”

"I have never been publicly challenged by an employee in a way that I find so disrespectful and condescending!"

Remembering what he really wanted, he continued. “Let me see if I get it. You worry that I might not have the age or experience under my belt to effectively manage some of the issues that we face around here?” The employee nodded in affirmation. He went on to say, “You suspect that I might make the mistake of listening to some consultant’s advice on what to do around here without first considering the thoughts and ideas of people like you and others who have a lot of time and experience invested in this place? I also wonder if you believe that as I look out from over this podium I see a room full of problems as opposed to a room full of answers. Am I close?”

The room began to come alive as employees enjoyed some of the safety that Phillip had just created by tapping into what he really wanted most. Playing off the energy in the room, Phillip asked that the employees take a few minutes in small groups to select other issues that they would like to hear comment on. He basically said, “I share your concerns. I am not interested in shooting from the hip without the optimal experience behind all decisions. I too believe that making sweeping changes with only one viewpoint in hand is a liability. I also value the experience that is in this room. We will not have the time today to answer all of your questions. We can gather them with your help in small groups right now. I will address the first issue and schedule time to visit with you again in the next two weeks.”

Phillip had taken the higher road of dismantling his stories long enough to capture what he really wanted most for those in the room - mutual trust with employees and the associated comfort of speaking honestly about tough issues.

Then, suddenly and almost as an afterthought, Phillip interrupted the employees in their small groups to add, “One other thing to that employee with the original question. If you ever speak to me that way again, publicly or privately – or I to you – or any of us to anyone within a five-mile radius of this facility it will be grounds for a conversation, write-up, or probation. Now that we know that we can be direct with our concerns with full respect – let’s commit to doing just that. Do we have a deal?”

The employees voted with heartened applause.

Those organizations that succeed in holding Crucial Conversations and holding them well will not only find that they can generally avoid failure, but that they will also reap enormous boosts in performance—a result that will be unequivocally positive for all of the organizations’ key stakeholders, from the most senior board member to the most junior employee.